Archive for June, 2009

London 29 June 2009, Royal Opera House

Conductor: Maurizio Benini

un ballo

Un Ballo in Maschera must present directors with a real conundrum. The story of Riccardo, governor of mid-18th Century Boston, who is assassinated by a group of malcontents lead by his best friend Renato who wants to exact revenge for the affair Riccardo is having with Amelia (Renato’s wife), is based on the real life history of Gustavus III of Sweden. The Swedish setting is how the opera was originally conceived and yet despite the fact that many details were changed to suit the operatic stage, the Italian censors would not allow a work dealing with the assassination of a King to be seen in Italy for fears it would give the opera going public too much food for thought in relation to their own absolutist monarchies.

So, given the removal from the original setting, how should a director present the opera; as literal, or figurative? In this production by Mario Martone we saw realist sets and period costumes and the result was that the friction caused by the inherent inconsistencies in the libretto shone out to the detriment of the performance. Perhaps if a more modern or abstract conception had been used the piece would have worked.

There was a strange dislocation between the textual setting (Puritanical Boston) and the dramatic setting (a Versailles-like court). I think it is for this reason that the Covent Garden production was not as compelling as the dense and intensely dramatic score would suggest it should be.  There is something inherently jarring about hearing the governor of Boston cry out in response to receiving the guest list for the masked ball of the title: Avresti alcuna/ Belta dimenticato? You have not forgotten any beauty?, which has a distinctly Berlusconi-esque character.  

Ramon Vargas who played Riccaro, tended throughout the performance to act neither with his body nor his voice, and in the first act mistook Riccardo’s sense of fun with a mere arrogant brashness although he was not convincing even in this misinterpretation of the character.  In the critical second act his lack of musical subtlety meant that his love for Amelia  seemed disingenuous, almost as though he was toying with her. He did not portray a man whose soul was being torn in many different directions, and thus the power of the scene, even in their eventual confessions of love, was lost.  The consequence of this was that in the final scene when he forgives his own murderer and tells Renato of his wife’s innocence (Io…Rispettato ho il suo condor I respected her purity) the absolution appears to be a revelatory reaction to sin realised in death, whereas in fact his decency and the pure, yet hugely emotional love Riccardo feels for Amelia evidenced by this forgiveness should have been present throughout the opera.

Angela Marambio (Amelia) is a strong physical actress and an excellent vocal actress, yet her singing is at times screechy and abrasive. This was evident in Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa where the conflicted Amelia must purge her infidelity yet the thought of being alleviated from a love so true is a thought too terrible. Che ti resta, perduto l’amor? What is left once love is dead, she asks before falling on her knees begging the lord for strength for her suffering heart. For me this is the key scene in the opera and goes straight to the core of the conflict between duty and heart that fights in the souls of the protagonists leading them toward the final and terrible conclusion. Angela Marambio sang with intelligence of phrasing, and touched the emotional heart of the scene wonderfully, even if there were the occasional bizarre noises and deafening high notes.

Fortunately Dalibor Jenis, who played opposite her as Renato had a silky smooth bass, and a seemingly inherent understanding that Renato is as much hurt as he is angered by his wife’s infidelity; an understanding that shone out beautifully in Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima

There were strong supporting performances from Anna Christy who sparkled as Oscar, and Elena Manistina as Ulrica (the fortune teller) who seemed genuinely to be communing with the spirits at times, the extremely low notes required in the vocal line echoing eerily through the hall. 

The orchestra under Benini’s baton seemed subdued at times. In fact the maestro was building up to a slow crescendo which was only fully realised in the final scene. The pleasing musical effect this produced was only slightly diminished by a feeling of slight lugubriousness in the more playful comedic moments, specifically Oscar’s Votla la terrea, where Benini held back a florid and stylish execution by Christy. Dark textures abounded which matched the underlying vein of treachery that ran through the on-stage friendships. 

This was a mixed bag of performances and concepts. At times very moving, but confused and poorly characterised in equal measure. Having seen a 17th century Bostonian setting it is my opinion that only way to successfully pull off a glitzy convent garden production, such as the opera going public of London demand, would be to return the play to 18th century Sweden.

Rating: 6/10

Postscript: Bobby d’Ormonde who attended the performance with me, and is infinitely more knowledgeable about music than I am gave this production 7/10.

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sandringham_house2Aubrey Rutherford and I recently visited the Sandringham Estate and House, which as we all know is the private residence of the Royal Family. We paid the £10 entrance, and sauntered off into the park land, before following the tour through the house. We gawped at some porcelain and muskets and then left firm in the conviction that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II should immediately forbid the public from entering her properties, use the royal prerogative to instruct Parliament to give her enough money to keep her them going without the need to open her doors to all and sundry, and then have a big bonfire of all the left over velvet ropes.

What could possibly lead me to make such a statement I hear you cry. Well let me tell you: the majesty of monarchy, the nobility of an ancient ruling family, and more specifically, the sumptuousness of the residences themselves are totally degraded by the opening of these buildings to the public. At Sandringham shabby carpet is laid down over the beautiful rugs that cover the floor, velvet ropes inhibit your every curiosity, and the dinner plates are on display like a Wedgewood catalogue. Scores of septuagenarians shuffle slowly around the house asking inane questions about whether the Queen has actually sat on this or that cushion all the while trying to appear more knowledgeable about the royal history than the others that came with them on the coach.

 Rutherford posited, and I agree wholeheartedly, that rather than see royal residences reduced thus, we would rather live safe in the knowledge that our Queen and her family can enjoy these buildings as they were intended, as private residences. Perhaps the closure of the houses coupled with the odd OK photo shoot of the interiors would actually increase our fascination with monarchy as the horribly real and mundane nature of actually visiting (car parking, ticket buying, being ‘moved along’ etc.) would be replaced by having to use our imagination, to picture the royal family enjoying what history has allowed them to acquire. What we want from the royals is pomp, circumstance, majesty, and the odd scandal, NOT gift shops and home made fudge.

As we were leaving the house I overheard the following conversation:

Old Woman:   oh thank you so much, we have had such a lovely time

Usher:             I’m so glad you enjoyed in ma’am

Old Woman:   Its wonderful to be able to see all these beautiful objects

Usher:             Indeed

Old Woman:   and I mean, really they belong to all of us don’t they?, they really do belong to the nation,  they belong to all of us.

Usher:             Well hmmm…… actually they belong to the Queen.

I felt like going up to the usher and shaking his hand. He hit the nail on the head. None of it belongs to nation, it all belongs to the bloody Queen, and that is the way it should be. What would be the point in having a Queen at all if she did not own palaces and art and magnificent furniture? Why do we want to have a Queen on the one hand, and yet with the other we are determined to drag her down to the level of a normal person? Surely that is entirely beside the point.

The conclusion we must therefore draw from all of this, is that if we are going to have a queen, we should allow her to be regal and stop reducing her to the life of a common capitalist by forcing her to open her doors to the great unwashed for a meagre tenner. She only costs us £0.69 per tax payer per year, the price of a can of coke, or a Mars Bar in these inflation heavy times, sugary treats that I for one would happily surrender, so lets up it to one whole pound (£1) and let her get on with being a full blown, resplendent and stately monarch.  

You might retort that we should do away with the monarchy altogether, saying that such an institution can have no relevence in the 21st century. I daresay you would be right, but it is an entirely different debate. Thus, my advice to Her Majesty the Queen is: whilst we allow you to remain in power, you should reclaim your homes, close your doors, forget not your public, but leave them firmly at the gates for they are morons.

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Then the King turning to Dr. Juxon, said, “I have a good cause and a gracious God on my side.”

“There is but one stage more. This stage is turbulent and troublesome, it is a short one. But you may consider it will soon carry you a very great way, it will carry you from earth to heaven, and there you shall find to your great joy the prize. You haste to a crown of glory,” replied Dr. Juxon

“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”

“You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal Crown, a good exchange.”

Then the King took off his cloak and his George, giving his George to Dr. Juxon saying “remember” (it was for the Prince), and some other small ceremonies were past. After which teh King stooping down, laid his neck upon the block. And after a little pause, stretching forth his hands, the Executioner at one blow severed his head from his body.

Taken from the account of the execution of King Charles I by John Rushworth.

Thus ended in 1649 the 25 year reign of Charles Stuart; a reign characterised by civil war, political turmoil and experiments by the King in personal rule without a government. England was proclaimed a Commonwealth and in the chaos that followed Oliver Cromwell, who was the author of Charles’ downfall and execution, was appointed in 1653 Lord Protector, dictator in all but name.

It also set the wheels irreversibly in motion that would lead 360 years later, to me and Sir William Wilmot following a 220 mile footpath in the steps of his son, also Charles Stuart.

There are many historical accounts of the trial and execution of King Charles. However, I can highly recommend “The Trial of Charles I” published by The Folio Society in 1959, which contains contemporary accounts of John Rushworth and Sir Thomas Herbert and an excellent potted history of the circumstances that lead to England executing its Monarch.

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The Anatomy of a Motto

Major Gressingham FRCO, FCC, Bar

“No Pain, No Gain” – How oft are those words spoken by many a PE teacher, Army General, hiker and athlete, but do we actually know what it means? If it is true that there is no gain with out pain how can we judge if we are getting sufficient gain from the pain to justify undertaking the activity at hand?

In the following paragraph I will attempt to answer just those questions and along the way provide an explanation of The Pain/Gain Theory, a theory that finds its strongest proponent in the work of Sir William Wilmot who outlined the details to me whilst we rambled through the Gloucestershire countryside one day in May 2009. It struck me then, as I hope it will soon strike you, how the theory can be described in terms originally coined for the science of macro-economics, and in applying the workings of that noble discipline to the Pain/Gain theory we can rationalise something that previously had been product of instinct.

The Gain Line

If we were to plot gain as a line it would look something like this:


 Simple Gain

Q is the amount of gain, the Quantity. Strictly speaking $ is the amount of money you would be willing to pay for each of the corresponding units of gain although it may be more useful to think of it in terms of how much energy you would choose to expend in acquiring each additional unit of gain. Thus, for any point along the gain line we can say exactly how much one would be willing to pay (or how much energy one would expend) for each of the units of gain that fall along the line.


The line is downward sloping because of the law of diminishing marginal returns. That law states that the more of a good one has the less we are willing to pay for it. For example, if you have a proclivity for Mars Ice Creams you might derive a great benefit from your first bar of the day. That pleasure may even carry through to the second bar. By the time you are stuffing your face with ice cream number three, you may start to get weary. Come number ten you may well be completely indifferent to Mars Ice Creams. Talking in terms of deriving benefit is the same as talking in terms of price. In other words you would be willing to pay £1.20 for your first ice cream as you would get £1.20 worth of pleasure. By the time you reach Ice cream number nine you may think each helping is only worth £0.30 because you are deriving less benefit from each further bar. This concept explains why a student will gain much more pleasure from a tenner than will a millionaire who sleeps on a mattress stuffed with tenners.

Now that we understand why the line is downward sloping we need to consider its gradient. The steepness of the line reflects what is termed the elasticity of gain. The steepness of the line reflects the loss of benefit as an additional unit of gain is acquired.


 Steeper Gain


A comparison of Figure A and Figure B illustrates the concept of elasticity. The gain line in Figure B is relatively steeper than that of figure A. This means that benefit derived for each extra unit of gain in Figure B is less than that in figure A. So for example the unit of gain in Figure B may be linked to an activity such as masturbation. The benefit from the first wank is high, but the gain from the second is very much less and pretty much after that all you want to do is go to sleep. The gain in Figure A is most likely linked to a less benefit intensive activity such as eating a bag of kettle chips. The benefit from the first crisp is high, and the second is less good but in a dramatically smaller way than the second wank; the gain from eating additional crisps does drop, but much more gently possibly until the whole bag has been eaten. Thus the line in Figure B is steeper, or more elastic than the line in figure A.

Perfect elasticity or inelasticity of gain can exist. So for instance the gain line may be totally inelastic (horizontal) for an activity such as breathing, because each breath you take does not make you want to take the next one less. One never tires of breathing, and as each breath is critical the line is perfectly inelastic; breathing therefore, is not subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. Gain may theoretically be perfectly elastic (vertical) , although the circumstances are hard to imagine. It would involve gain relating to an activity which you would want to do just once and never again because there would be no benefit to you from one more until of gain – perhaps taking one’s own life might be an example.

The Pain Line

Pain is an altogether different beast, and the concept of plotting the pain line stretches the economics analogy to its limit. Yet it holds true.


 Pain Simple

Here again Q is the quantity or amount of pain. When thinking about $ on the y axis we must think not of money, but of energy. So if the amount of energy expended (be it physical, emotional, or mental) on an activity is high the pain will be high, this is a function of the upward slop of the line.


As with gain, the pain line is elastic. It may be more elastic (steeper) when the extra energy involved in the activity increases the pain by a lesser amount than a relatively inelastic line (flatter). Computer gaming would have a steep pain curve, as even a huge increase in energy will be accompanied by only a small increase in the amount of pain. Conversely, mountaineering is an activity with a flatter pain line as a small increase in the energy expended will result in a relatively larger amount of pain.

 The Pain Gain Equilibrium

Having an understanding of the shape of the pain and gain lines allows us to map the equilibrium point. When looking at the following graphs you need to think of $ as the value of the experience not necessarily in monetary terms, although how much you would have to pay for the experience is a handy way of thinking about the concept.


 Pain.Gain Eq

The equilibrium point is where the pain line crosses the gain line and is thus a product of the interaction of pain and gain. This is the point of greatest efficiency. At this point you are experiencing the maximum amount of gain for the most efficient amount of pain. Put another way, the pain to gain ratio is at its most economical. Thus e$ is the worth you are deriving from the activity in question whereas eQ is the amount of pain and gain that will be experienced.

 Thus when doing an activity we can now check using this method whether we are experiencing enough gain for the level of pain we are experiencing, and also a fair price for undertaking the pursuit can be calculated (if for instance you wanted to charge others to do the activity with you).

 For illustrative purposes you can see in Figure E how the elasticity of one of the lines will effect the pain/gain outcomes.


 Steeper Gain.Pain Eq

As illustrated, if the gain line is relatively more elastic (steeper) the equilibrium point is closer to zero, thus less value is achieved as the commensurate gains will be lower than a relatively less elastic gain line activity.







Shifts in the Pain/Gain Lines

If there is a shift in either of the pain or gain lines the equilibrium point will shift accordingly.


 Pain Shift

A parallel shift in the pain curve in an upwards direction is effectively an easing of conditions of pain. So for example a hiker may have a day’s rest at which point the nasty blister on his right foot and the knob rot that set in somewhere just past Cirencester have had a chance to heal. Thus at value level e$1 the amount of pain will be less. However, the shift in the pain line means that the equilibrium point where the pain and gain lines interact also shifts. So we see that when this happens the value f the experience is increased to e$2 there is less pain but critically,  also less gain eQ2.

 This really is the crux of the pain/gain theory, and is also its most controversial tenet because what we are in fact saying is that the hiker who had a blister and knob rot was actually experiencing more gain with those ailments despite the pain being greater.


The pain line may also shift downwards for example if a skier twisted his leg and had to ski on it for the remaining 4 days of the family holiday to St Moritz.


 Pain Shift Gain Shift

There can also be shifts in the gain curve as we can see in figure G. an upward shift would indicate an improvement in circumstance which increases gain and value without requiring any extra effort; an example would be when cycling from John O’Groats to Lands end, the exact moment you left Scotland and entered England would be an upward gain line shift. The exact reverse is true and a downward shift the result when cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats.

 Figure G then illustrates both a pain line shift and a gain line shift. Initially the equilibrium point is eQ1 with value e$1. Then an upward pain line shift (improvement in pain conditions) moves the equilibrium to eQ2 with value e$2, if there is then an upward shift of the gain line also the equilibrium point returns to eQ1, so the pain and gain is the same as it was initially before pain conditions improved and there was a change of scenery or other gain curve shifting event, but the value of the experience has increased. This is called Pleasure Inflation.

 A Note on Meanings

The author is of the opinion that there is scope for considerable confusion in much of the above paragraphs due to the similar meanings or connotations attaching to the words gain and value or worth. So although for example in Figure G when we are at equilibrium eQ2 and value e$2 the amount of gain (eQ2) is lower than when we are at eQ1, and yet the value e$2 is higher than e$1. Thus we can see that gain and value are not necessarily positively correlated. Value is a monetary type evaluation whereas gain is a more esoteric type of benefit.

 The value of an experience is a product not of how much gain there is, but of how a certain amount of gain interact with the corresponding amount of pain. If the combination is just right it needn’t matter that the amount of gain is smaller, the experience will still have a relatively higher value or worth.


Pain and Gain have been understood by humans since the dawn of time, but much like the functioning of the markets we had an intuitive understanding without any technical foundations. I have broken down the wall of ignorance and formalised what has for centuries been based on divination.

 With my handy and easy to use graphs you can make sure you are getting the most out of your life at any given moment.

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